Sunday, March 26, 2017

Grief Journal: Integrity

Bugle played Taps at the fireman’s funeral
Broke my hidden heart
Blessed with tears for my brother
My brother, who is gone

I've recently had the opportunity to practice what I preach. The first came a week ago last Friday, and is referred to in the poem above.  I attended the funeral of Wilbur W, the husband of my co-worker Dianna.  Coincidentally, Wilbur served on the first crew to respond to the incident at the Murrah Federal Building on April 19.  Two firefighters served as his color guard prior to the service.  I was quite impressed by the dignity and ceremony.  At the end of the service, the older of the two served as a bugler, playing Taps.

I wept. 

The receiving line was long and slow.  We walked single file by the open casket, with little space to look away, through two doorways, to where the widow stood.  We were told that she wanted to hug every person in the line.  She seemed delighted to see me, and the co-worker who had come with.  I had no words - I was still recovering from the bugler's threnody.  I simply held her until she loosened her hold.

I pray she found as much comfort in that warm embrace as I did.

The second incident was last Sunday.  Remember when I wrote that my task was to accept even the most awkward comforting words in the spirit in which they were intended?  I got a chance to practice that a week ago today.  Oddly enough, these interactions seem to happen with people I tend to avoid.  This person undoubtedly considers himself a friend - he's a fellow well-met, as we say, and likely considers no one an enemy.  My emotional response to him has been one of caution - I tend to be suspicious of bonhomie; it can feel false, like a used car salesman.

All that is background.

He called me over.  Said something like, "How you doing?"  I made the traditional non-committal response of "OK."  Then he said, "Well, you've got a whole community of brothers and sisters to support you, don't you." 

I can only wonder if he was an only child. 

I smiled and thanked him, then moved on elsewhere.

Coincidentally, saw him at the library.  He noticed me; I waved and quickly moved the opposite direction, like a man on a mission.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Grief Journal: Stages of Grief

I was recently reminded that I read Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' On Death and Dying for a book report in high school.  My step-mother would die about a year later, and I would learn the emotional responses to grief fit this schema as well.  Some years later, Kubler-Ross' interviews and research substantiated this intuition.  After all, the death of a near friend or loved one means the death of the relationship; a death, if you will, of the person you were in relation to the deceased.

The following is based on the stages of dying; I have not yet read her book On Grief and Grieving.  I've put it on hold at the local library.


My brother maintained a practice of emailing several articles a day.  Somehow, he had created custom lists of topics different people were interested in, and would send links related to those topics - sort of a bespoke Brain Pickings.  The last email I received, on Saturday, February 25,  included a link to this article.  I responded, which is rare, and my brother thought my response missed the point.  It took the rest of the day to form an answer, which I sent about 7:30 Sunday morning.

As it turns out, he was probably in the hospital by this time.

Monday came, Tuesday went, and I began to wonder why I hadn't received any articles.  Now, there had been a previous break in my brother's emails - when he had suffered a heart attack on Tuesday, November 29 - which he referred to as "a bit of a bother" a week later.  So, I let it go.

Then, around 9:00 Wednesday morning, March 1, the thought occurred to me: "I wonder if he's gone?"  Later that morning, a mutual friend called with the news that my brother was in the hospital and was not expected to recover.

So: I began a process of denying that reality.  I thought he'd get better.  After all, he survived the heart attack.  But he died around 3:45 that same afternoon.

For the first few days after that, I couldn't shake the notion it was a bad dream.  I was weepy, crying in my sleep, as I've said elsewhere.  I found myself mourning the loss one moment, then considering practical matters the next.  Then, chiding myself for worrying about practical matters. 


I get enraged more easily.  I'm annoyed by the chatter of my co-workers - how dare they enjoy life while I mourn the loss of my brother!  I identify with the words of Auden's “Funeral Blues”: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone ....”  I want the world to stop; I want to proclaim the tragic news from the mountain top, or in skywriting.

Last week, I released a stream of profane words, featuring the "F" word, because a co-worker was not performing a task exactly as I would.  Happily, I had the office to myself at the time.

Saturday evening, I came home to find a large pick-up truck using my drive to turn around.  Now this is a pet peeve in the best of times.  I felt the rage burning through me.  I was just this side of fisty-cuffs.  Happily, I restrained myself.

For the most part, I think I'm restraining my anger when appropriate, and venting it when safe.  I hope it's not leaking out at the sides, as can often happen with repressed rage.  If it does, I hope people will take it in the context of my loss.   There is, as I've mentioned, a "get out of jail" bonus to grief.  I pray I don't abuse it.


I have not offered to trade my life for my brother's.  It likely helps that I don't think the G-d of my (lack of) understanding works that way.

Instead, I rehearse various wishes and regrets: I wish I had visited him late last year, as I was encouraged to do.  I regret the years we lost between Padre's death and when we reconnected.  I wish I could share this article, or YouTube video with him.  I regret that I had not recorded my two latest songs on YouTube, so he could have heard them before he died.

I've been a bit more profligate in spending since my brother's death.  I haven't spent myself into debt, but it's something I know I need to keep an eye on.  Many times when I'm tempted, I ask myself: do I really believe this object will bring my brother back?  Or: do I really want this object cluttering my house?

I find myself spending money in my brother's name: I threw money in a busker's hat at the Farmer's Market on Saturday. I bought Girl Scout cookies, in honor of the affection he had for his granddaughter.  Admittedly, I don't know if she was a Campfire Girl (she's 18 now); but it was a misty chilly morning, and somehow I thought he would feel the same compassion I did.

I'm considering donating to public broadcasting (both TV and Radio), thinking he might have done the same.


Richard Fariña wrote a book titled Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me; I've never read it, but I've always loved that title.  Although this novel addresses the myth of the 60s, the title seems like a good description of depression. 

What are some signs of depression? 

  • Distrubance in sleep patterns.
  • Lack of appetite. 
    Debatable.  Since I primary eat out of boxes, I take little pleasure in my normal repast.  I eat to prevent low blood sugar events.  That anger I mentioned earlier?  Would be even worse if blood sugar dips too low.  I know, just like the Snickers' commercial.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in your activities
    Well, I enjoyed jamming with friends last night, but keeping this journal is becoming a chore.  Toss-up.
  • Feelings restless and agitated, or else very sluggish and slowed down physically or mentally
    Honestly, I've had my manic moments and my weary moments.  About 50/50, I guess
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
    Not totally.  Or, no more than normal.
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions
    Though I sometimes attribute that to my disturbed sleeps patterns
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Nope.  Well, not since the first couple of days. 
    There have been a few times I've been tempted to drink full-potency alcohol.  Friends in the AA Program would suggest that's the same as feeling suicidal.  However, I have not so much as gone into a liquor store.

And - what am I doing about it?

  • Taking St. John's Wort, although I've been told it can take a while to be effective.  I've learned that if I give it time, my mood does improve.
  • Walking outside, weather permitting
  • Getting out of the house more.  Thus, I went to a concert the week of my brother's death with my friend MT.  I walked the Live! On the Plaza event this past Friday.  I jammed with friends Sunday evening.  Going to grief counseling this Thursday, and possibly a different group next week.  I'm likely to go to a concert this Friday.
  • When home, I don't allow myself much space to brood.  I read, listen to music, surf the web, or watch TV.  TV has long been my drug of choice, and - on the whole - is less self-destructive than alcohol or other options.
  • I'll be going back to work tomorrow.  But I'll also allow myself to leave early, or take additional time, as seems fit.  That one, I'm playing by ear.


Kubler-Ross made clear that these stages are not something a person works through sequentially.  And, even if the person finds a moment of Acceptance, s/he may quickly find him/herself back at Bargaining or Depression.  So, there are moments when I accept this is my new reality: I live in a world that no longer has my brother on it.

And, I get teary typing that sentence.

One thing I've learned from previous losses is that grief comes on in waves.  The first month or so, the waves are especially intense.  Then, over time, their power diminishes.  It took me about a year to feel fully recovered after Padre died.  I imagine this process will be similar.

Grief is never gone, not entirely.  There are days I still miss Padre, although the ache is less intense than it was the months after he died.

The best I can do is keep on walking.  The shore may seem endless, but it's a shore I've walked before.  I know I can survive this.  It may never get better; I'll have to learn to live without a brother, as I learned to live without a father.  But it is survivable.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Notes on The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The following are some notes I took while watching the documentary The Tibetan Book of the Dead, narrated by the late Leonard Cohen. These notes are no particular order or format - they were spread between two notebooks and the back of an envelope.  I bought a copy of the translation used in the documentary on my way home from Hal's funeral.

Tibetan Buddhists believe the transition from life to death lasts 49 days.

You come into this world
this world of illusion
through a small white room
before you knew your name.
And now you leave this world
this suffering world
through another white room
and you're drawn to the light.
May you recognize there a kindred spirit.
May you be received as a beloved child.

May the hungry ghosts find liberation.

Recognize the peaceful deities as projections of your own mind, or else they will transform into the wrathful ones.
Recognize your innate weakness, and you will be liberated.
May your loved ones release their attachment to you.

These meager offerings represent everything that is desirable, virtuous & sustaining in this world
this foreign world.
The body you once wore becomes indistinct to you.
Your new body awaits.
You are anxious for your new life.

Perhaps the form you choose will be a great bird of the plains - an eagle or a hawk.  If so, I have seen your kinsman sailing the wind above the land of Chief Roman Nose.

Listen without distraction:
May you find a fortunate birth.
You will one day recognize your own true nature,
where you will become endless possibility, free
from attachment and fear.

Within you is the body of light.

This may be your last breath
beyond body & air.

I am grateful for what the path of life gives me
with aspirations for the well-being of all.

I am grateful for the time we shared
I am grateful we walked the path together, for a time.
I am grateful for the 17 years we've grown into brothers.

Soon all hopes and fears will be irrelevant.

You will find that room
that expansive room
where the gods are but projections of your pure inner light
Rest in this light,
the clear light of your own awareness.

At length, we lose everything we thought real.
Do not cling to fear or longing.  Strive
to perceive & partake in the cosmic mind.
May your mind be untroubled & clear.

Recline on your right side,
as the Buddha did at the moment of his own death.
Now your compassion is as limitless as space.

Earth collapses into water;
Water collapses into fire;
Fire collapses into air;
Air dissolves into consciousness.
Then there is an experience of piercing luminosity,
pure white light.
You may believe you perceive a new reality — it is still a projection of your mind.

From everlasting consciousness you have come, and
to eternal consciousness you shall you return.

What do you see from your former life?

Do not cling to these memories.
Do not cling to the past.
Do not cling to the ones who mourn you, though their tears call out to you.

The 42 peaceful deities emanate from your heart;
The 58 wrathful deities emanate from your brain.
Do not fear them.
Do not fear your wakefulness.
Take refuge in the Teacher;
Take refuge in the Teachings;
Take refuge in the Practice —
on the path to recognize your own mind.
Recognize the luminous essence of your own mind.
Seek the truth and practice compassion.

Tokens become icons;
icons become distractions;
distractions become obstacles to freedom & enlightenment.

These are the tokens you may recognize when you are reborn:
the bull's horn (which only Padre could play);
the computer keyboard, where you did so much compassionate work;
the water purification system you built;
the wells and reservoirs where you stored the water;
the music, the wealth of music which enriched your home;
the land, the setting sun
beyond the Texas foothills.

Grief Journal: Advice for Job's Friends

When I posted Sunday morning about unsolicited advice, I had forgotten that my lady friend reads this blog.  She read that entry, and her feelings were understandably hurt.  Which was far from my intention.

As I say, the loss of a loved one is almost more than anyone can bear.  A sudden unexpected loss, as with my brother, is even harder.  What can you say?  You hate to see your friend hurting, so you try to find comforting words.  "I'm sorry" seems so paltry in the face of such a loss.  Can we honestly say, "I grieve with you," without seeming to appropriate our friend's hurt?  Most people my age (61) have experienced at least one major loss in their lives.  Do any of us remember words that were the most comforting?  I suspect most of us remember the closeness and concern of our friends more than any particular words said.

I typically say, "Peace be with you."  Which could be just as troubling as any advice.

Thankfully, our church does not have people who would say "Your brother is in a better place now" or "God wanted another angel."

Hint: I'm, relatively certain those will not be comforting words to anyone.

Man, this may not be the best time to listen to Górecki's Symphony No. 3 (aka, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). Then again, it might be exactly the right time.


In a way, I blame my brother.  His injunction against a funeral or memorial service has short-circuited the social customs around a friend's loss.  For example, at work, the last time an employee lost a close realtive (her mother), she took off 2-3 weeks, and returned to find a sympathy card and some flowers.  I haven't chosen to take off, primarily because there's no function to attend.  There are, as yet, no practical concerns to attend to.  So: no flowers, no sympathy card. 

In the church, there would be a large funeral.  There would be no need for the grapevine or Facebook posts to notify people I have suffered a loss.  There it would be, an official announcement, spoken at our next services, and sent via email.  The funeral would be followed by a feast, prepared by the Episcopal Church Women.  I think Joann S would rejoice that she could minister to her friend.  There is a custom of presenting people with a prayer shawl as a physical reminder that the bereaved is surrounded by the prayers of the community.  These things will not happen for me.  Though I did have a substitory wake Saturday evening with a mutual friend of my brother & mine.

So, I've been faced with finding my own rituals to walk the grief path.  I've been praying the Novena for the Dead from St. Augustine's Prayer Book; ironically, my brother would strongly object to the language.  At this moment, I accept the words - they are more like symbols of the stages.  Sunday and Monday, I wore a purple shawl with a labyrinth pattern, as a token of the prayer shawl I may not receive from my church.  In about two hours, I will attend Hal's funeral.

Side note: I was not extremely close to Hal.  He was a priest in our diocese, and served at a church I attended for a brief time.  I mostly interacted with him at a Guitar Camp he and Lindy Hearn led for several years. 

Although Hal and I were not close, we did have a relationship.  In a way, the relationship was similar to the one I had with my brother.  So, I will attend his funeral, bearing in mind the transitive relation of grief; that this funeral will be a safe place for me to express grief for my loss.

As for my friends?  It's hard.  As I've said, to say his name, to admit he's dead, is a tender moment.  So - everyone who knows me has my permission to spread the word.  Let the grape vine ignite!  I want everyone in my faith community to know, but I don't have the energy to tell each one.

Each person will express their condolences in the best words they can find.  My task is to ignore the particular words, and to accept the compassion in the spirit in which it is offered.  It will be tender, it may hurt, but it will be necessary.  No significant change or transition occurs with out difficulties or pain. 

To be honest, there's a part of me that wants to stand on the mountain-top and declare: "Pity me! For my brother, who I loved, is dead."  There's another part of me that recognizes how maudelin & pathetic it would be to stop each person on the street with those words.  There's a part of me that would like to use this loss as a "get out of jail free" card.  I still remember justifying poor work performance in relation to my divorce.  It's true, of course, I'm not fully on my game.  But there's only so long that's appropriate, until it seems greedy and self-serving.

What can you say?  I'm afraid I don't have a script.  I think, as with past losses, your presence will be what lingers over time.  Don't worry about your words.  "Sorry for your loss," may seem insufficient, but your touch and your compassion will make up for anything lacking in the words.

Grief Journal: The Transitive Relation of Grief

One of the few things I remember from high school math is transitive relationship.  It's normally expressed: "If a = b and b = c, then a = c.

Human emotions are not so precise, of course.  But each loss holds echoes of previous losses.  My brother's death reminds me of Padre's death, of Wanda's death, of Robin's death, and on and on back to that first loss, the death of our maternal grandfather, Samuel H.  This loss reminds me of how my brother-in-law, my wife's youngest sibling, died about three months prior to his mother.  Both had been in the Navy, so the Navy hymn was sung at both funerals.  There was a period of about two years during which I could not sing that hymn because I got so choked up.

It may be a blessing there will be no funeral for my brother.  He was in the Marines, a branch of the Navy.  And hearing the Navy Hymn once more in this context would tear my heart like the temple curtain. 

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.

‘No man is an island,› saith the poet. Just so, no grief stands alone.

Grief Journal: Idée d’jour

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me-- and there was no one left to speak for me. -Martin Niemoller, pastor, initial supporter of Hitler, concentration camp survivor (1892 - 6 Mar 1984)

Brother Dave referenced this famous quote in his last email blast (more about that later) in relation to this newstory.

Variant from independent journalist Jonathan Katz: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals and scientists and then it was Wednesday.”

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Grief Journal, 3/05

Yesterday, 6:34 a.m.

Early memory of Brother Dave:
The scene is my maternal grandfather's funeral; I am ˜4 years old. It's my first experience of death.

I said, “My eyes are leaking.” And Dave shushed me.

In the past, I've assumed Dave was embarrassed by my statement. He would have been ˜10, and possibly easily embarrassed by his kid brother. Now, I wonder if he just felt like some things needed to remain private.

Sometime on the road

I went for a drive back and forth on N.E. 30th, searching for the family burial plot.  At some point, a driver in front of me did something that seemed foolish or inconsiderate.  I can't even remember what it was now.  But, in the moment, I felt a rush of rage - disproportionate to the precipitating event.  "Wow," I thought, "so that's happening.  I best be on guard."

As it turned out, I wasn't even looking for the right cemetery.  I did find it, much later in the day.

Yesterday afternoon - Unsolicited Advice

There are two books I recommend for people in mourning: A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.  The former is best read within a month of the loss.  The latter is best read about a year after.

I don't remember either of them talking about unsolicited advice.  It started Wednesday evening, shortly before service, when a woman from the choir suggested I seek out the Compassionate Friends website.  I'll confess this is not someone I would normally ask for advice.  But, she lost her son several years ago, and I knew she was well-intentioned.  So I thanked her.

You may ask how she found out.  I'm not sure.  I told a priest from our church via phone about an hour before service - she was the first from our church I told.  I know she told the Cathedral's Dean, who came to offer comfort.  That interchange was over-heard by two others.  Somehow, it spread from there to the choir.  It likely spread even further.

I've helped spread it, by posting about my brother's death, and my grief, on Facebook.  Many of my Facebook friends attend the same church I do.  So, when I go to service today, I imagine there will be an outpouring of sympathy.

I screwed up my energy and courage to call my lady friend with the news Thursday evening.  She expressed sympathy, and offered comforting words.  I told her I planned to attend someone else's funeral this Tuesday, as a substitute for the service my brother did not want.  She said, "Well, maybe things happen for a reason," meaning the opportunity for a funeral happened so I could mourn my brother.  I guess. 

Now, as I think about the scene at church, I imagine there will be additional offers of unsolicitated advice.  I can't find much fault - I suffer from the "fix it" gene as well.  But, honestly, there's not much you can say in the face of grief - especially in the face of a death as unexpected as my brother's.  I suppose "I'm sorry for your loss" seems too small in the face of this, so you offer suggestions.

So far, the most meaningful thing to me have been hugs.  That warm physical contact reminds me that I am not a ghost.  I have not, in fact, followed my brother into that dark valley from which no one may return.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Grief Journal, 3/04

I lost my brother this past Wednesday. He died at 3:45 in the afternoon. It was his firm desire not to have a funeral or memorial service. He didn't even want an obit.

It's possible he'd object to my publicly sharing my grief. I'll just avoid using his name (though long-time readers of this blog already know it), and hope he won't mind terribly.

Coincidentally, Wednesday, March 1 was Ash Wednesday. When we are liturgically reminded of the transient nature of life: "Remember, O Child of God, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Having a close loved one die is another powerful reminder of this.

I find myself meditating on the things I can never do again - share books & music, for example. I find myself thinking of practical concerns - he was my emergency contact, and the beneficiary of my life insurance policy.

I am keeping a written journal, but it's my intention to share what I've written in this space.

March 3, 4:00 pm

I bought a candle for my brother.
I am his brother
and now he's gone.
The wind carries his ashes away.
He was my brother
and now he's gone.

March 3, 5:30 pm

My brother died on Ash Wednesday, two days ago, at a quarter to four in the afternoon.
I am made a ghost by his passing -
walking the Shadowlands with him.
One day, my forehead may be marked with his ashes.
From dust we come,
to dust we return.

Note: regarding being marked with my brother's ashes.  The ashes used for the Ash Wednesday service come from the palm branches used for Palm Sunday earlier in the year.  I was told, by someone I trust, that the branches are burned in a funeral home creamatorium.  So, there's no way to be certain that the ashes of the recently deceased are not mixed in with the palm branch ashes. Since my brother is being creamated somewhere in the Texas Foothills, this is no more than a poetic conceit.

March 4, 6:00 am

I've been crying in my sleep; my brother is gone.